UK COVID-19 Update: JCVI Prioritises Learning Disabilities, Record Medical School Applications

Tim Locke

February 24, 2021

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

JCVI Prioritises Learning Disabilities

The JCVI has advised the Government and the NHS to invite all people on the GP Learning Disability Register for COVID-19 vaccination.

JCVI COVID-19 Chair, Professor Wei Shen Lim, said: "As the severity of any disability may not be well recorded in GP systems, JCVI supports the NHS operational plan for anyone on the GP Learning Disability Register to  be invited now for vaccination as part of priority group 6, and to reach out in the community to identify others also severely affected by a learning disability but who may not yet be registered."

At least 150,000 more people with learning disabilities will now be offered vaccination sooner.

The policy change comes after a high-profile campaign by the broadcaster Jo Whiley, 55, who was offered her jab ahead of her sister Frances, 53, who has Cri du Chat syndrome and diabetes. She contracted COVID-19 in her care home and needed hospital treatment.

Jo Whiley said she was "crying with joy at today’s news".

The charity Mencap said it was "incredible news" and advised people to check that learning disabilities are correctly registered with GPs.

Jab Uptake

University of Oxford research suggests the percentage of people who are ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ to have a COVID-19 is 87%. That's up from 78% in October.

Around 7% remain ‘very unlikely’ to have the jab.

Brexit preferences seemed to have an effect with ‘Remainers’ more willing to have the vaccine than ‘Leavers’ or those who didn't vote in the 2016 referendum.

However, 'vaccine nationalism' does not appear to be an issue in people’s willingness to have the 'British' Oxford/AstraZeneca or 'German' Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Ben Ansell, said: "This multi-wave study gives us a rare glimpse of whose opinions have shifted and why. People have become massively more supportive of taking the vaccine overall but important gaps remain especially among groups whose trust in politicians is typically lower: non-voters, younger citizens, and poorer households.

"When so much of the UK Government’s lockdown exit strategy rests on successful vaccine roll out, these insights will be of immediate importance to policymakers in both their internal deliberation on policy and their outward facing communication with the public."

England's Deputy CMO Professor Jonathan Van-Tam addressed vaccine supply issues on Sky News, saying: "There are always going to be supply fluctuations."

He said the novel manufacturing processes were "a bit like beer-making" with unpredictable yields, adding "you do get batch-size variations".

App Vaccine Passport?

Having previously ruled out vaccine passports ministers are now considering making vaccination status and recent test results part of England and Wales' official COVID-19 app.

A review of options is being carried out by Cabinet office Minister Michael Gove.

COVID certification raises ethical and legal considerations. The Equality and Human Rights Commission said: "In exploring the use of vaccine passports to travel, work, enjoy social activities, and access essential services, equality and human rights considerations must be looked at in detail."

Daily Data

In today's daily data another 9938 UK positive tests were reported and 442 deaths.

Another 1327 COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospital. The total is now 16,803 and 2273 ventilator beds are in use.

As of yesterday, 18.2m people have had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 669,105 a second dose.

'Game-changing' Home HPV Kits

NHS England is trialling home HPV testing in response to many women's reluctance to attend cervical screening made worse by the pandemic.

Research found that 99% of women were able to carry out a self-swab effectively. For the trial, 19,000 women will be posted a kit and 12,000 will be given one by their GP.

YouScreen study lead Dr Anita Lim, King’s College London, said: "Self-sampling is a game-changer for cervical screening. We know many women aren't coming forward for screening and almost half of women in some parts of London aren't up-to-date with their cervical screening.

"It's an intimate procedure and a variety of barriers can stop people from attending, even though it can be a life-saving test."

Alexandra Lawrence, consultant gynaecological oncologist at the Royal London Hospital and part of the North East London Cancer Alliance, which co-chairs the study’s steering group, said: "During the COVID-19 pandemic, many patients have been reluctant to go to their GP surgery for a screening appointment. As well as measures to improve confidence amongst patients to attend NHS premises for screening, I hope the YouScreen study will also be part of the solution to ensuring that potential cancers are prevented."

Record Medical School Applications

There's been a record number of applications for medical school places, up 20.9% on last year.

The Medical Schools Council said the 28,690 applications includes first time applicants and those reapplying. In a statement it said: "In any typical year, medicine is a competitive subject for which to gain entry and is heavily oversubscribed."

It said: "The consequence of this rise in applications is that the selection criteria universities use in 2021 are likely to be stricter than those used in 2020."

Meanwhile, a Public Health England (PHE) study estimates that 17.8% of university students in England had COVID-19 antibodies.

Lead investigator Gayatri Amirthalingam, PHE consultant medical epidemiologist, said: "This study gives the first evidence of the extent of spread of COVID-19 infection amongst university students in England during the autumn term.

"Fewer than 1 in 5 students had evidence of previous COVID-19 infection by December 2020, indicating that the majority of students were still susceptible by the end of the autumn term. However, almost half of students living in halls of residence with high numbers of reported cases were found to have COVID-19 antibodies."

Protecting Doctors

More needs to be done to protect doctors from harm during the pandemic, according to the Royal College of Physicians President Professor Andrew Goddard, and Vice President RCP Global, Dr Mumtaz Patel, writing in The Lancet.

The article is called 'The changing face of medical professionalism and the impact of COVID-19'.

"COVID-19 has tested doctors and health-care workers to the limits of their professional competence and taken a considerable toll on their health and wellbeing," they say.

They cite RCP UK polling that found 54% of physicians reported morale as low or very low.

"There is an urgent need for a system-level approach to address the issues that COVID-19 has created to better protect and safeguard our medical workforce for the future. Such approaches need to focus on organisational culture and staff wellbeing as integral to professionalism and central to patient care," they write.

Latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data show that in recent weeks, the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 decreased in those who worked in both patient-facing and non-patient-facing jobs, and in those aged under 35 years and 35 years and above.

In early January, positive tests decreased in non-patient-facing jobs but increased among those in patient-facing roles.

PPE Safety

The BBC reported that 1.12 million FFP3 masks already in use in the NHS have been withdrawn over safety concerns.

The BMA said jeopardising staff safety was "unacceptable" a year into the pandemic.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson was quoted: "We carry out extensive due diligence on all PPE items before release, and where an issue is identified we act quickly to isolate the relevant product and conduct the appropriate investigations."

Nurse Workforce Retention

Pay, working conditions, and the cost of living is "likely to be a key lever" in retention of England's nursing staff, according to an Institute for Fiscal Studies report.

It concludes that "the existing national pay system does not provide trusts with sufficient flexibility to retain staff in the face of cost-of-living increases. Trusts located in areas that have a long-run high cost of living face particular difficulties".

Commenting, Professor James Buchan, senior visiting fellow at the Health Foundation, said:"The nursing workforce in England is under incredible strain. Over 35,000 nursing posts are vacant and sickness absence rates are high as a result of COVID, with 1 in 10 hospital nurses reported to be off work in January. This report provides further evidence that the Government needs to urgently develop a comprehensive national workforce plan that enables the NHS to recruit and retain nurses where they are needed most." 

COVID-19 Rehab

Progressive exercise and early mobilisation may improve recovery for patients hospitalised with severe COVID-19, according to University of Exeter research published in Physiotherapy.

Study co-author Professor Sallie Lamb, said: "Rehabilitation is a crucial element of COVID-19 care that must not be overlooked. As COVID-19 is still so new, there’s no evidence that evaluates the benefits of rehabilitation programmes for those in recovery. We now urgently need research to evaluate the benefit of programmes to patients with COVID-19 specifically."

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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